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Using Evidence for Change

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By Jim Kohlmoos, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE)

Like George Will, I am a life-long baseball fanatic who was rooting for "Moneyball" to win the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards Sunday evening. Yes, I admit that I love to study the box scores each morning during baseball season and fantasize each evening about who will win the World Series. But my infatuation with "Moneyball" is not just about baseball. I was mesmerized by this true story about how the use of data and statistical analysis has revolutionized an industry. Indeed it serves as a great analogue for another sector caught up in a reform-yearning arena: education.

To be sure, education's push into data-driven decisionmaking is still in its infancy. While the Data Quality Campaign has admirably led the way since 2005 in shining a bright light on the importance of student performance data in shaping policy and practice, the analytic capacity to actually use data is only just beginning to be built. Just as in baseball some years ago, key decisionmakers on the front lines of reform need help in organizing the avalanche of data now smothering them and then translating data into evidentiary knowledge about what works under what conditions moving forward. The need for such facility ultimately gave rise to the Institute of Education Sciences and the What Works Clearinghouse — yet many of the evidence-based cases listed in the Clearinghouse database still list "extent of evidence" as "small." Clearly, much work remains to be done.

Reform-minded organizations such as NASBE, then, will play an important role in this next phase of in the education reform continuum. That is, with so much raw or abstract information available, we need to be hubs of analysis of this data for our members and the education community writ large. Thus, we need and will continue to be reliable and honest brokers of information and knowledge so education policies are established on a foundation of evidence rather than hyperbole.

Certainly data do not make a winner every time, as baseball has already learned. Baseball junkies sometimes puzzle over what enables one team to win 60 percent of the time while others languish at 40 or 50 percent.

Likewise, in education the effective use of evidentiary knowledge will not guarantee success every time for every student in every circumstance. Policymakers, administrators, and practitioners need to build strong, robust relationships with researchers focusing on solving persistent problems of practice through research. Indeed, using evidence needs be woven into the professional wisdom of educators and policymakers. There are no silver bullets here, but bringing evidence more squarely into the policymaking process will increase the odds of success.

In this respect, public education is on the cusp of advancing from a problem-based era to a solutions-based period. As Robert Slavin wrote here late last year,

The best argument for emphasizing evidence in educational policy and practice is what happens when evidence plays no role: Practice and policy swing like a pendulum from one enthusiasm to the opposite, and then back again, but no progress is made.... The solution to the pendulum problem is to have a wide array of research going on at all times.... Then both practice and policy can begin to learn from the evidence and move forward together toward a better future for children.

Indeed, it is time for education to transform itself into an evidence-based field much like we see in medicine, energy, agriculture...and baseball.

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